Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Serendipitous Deliveries

Some time has passed since I've written a letter or in the The Letter Jar blog. First work took me away,  then I was so sick I could barely lift myself out of bed, let alone lift a pen to paper.

The two week hiatus wasn't that long, but still long enough that the prospect of returning to my correspondence was starting to feel foreign.

Was.

A couple well-timed and thoughtful responses to letters I sent, and my love of the handwritten note has been reignited. Reading each reply was a double blessing, as I learned how my letter affected the recipient and also savored for myself the act of holding someone's thoughts and sentiments in my hand, feeling connected across miles and years.

Today I received a letter from M, an editor of mine at my first newspaper reporting job. In my letter I had thanked her for being a tough boss:

I'm not going to lie to you, M -- when you first came to the paper, I resented you. A lot. You pushed me out of my (oh-so-comfortable) comfort zone and demanded more from me ... I may not have liked it at first, but damn if it didn't make me a better reporter ... That I'm no longer in newspaper doesn't diminish the lessons. No matter what career one is in -- news reporting or toilet scrubbing -- one can, if she is being honest, say whether she has given all, the best, 100 percent. Thanks for helping to instill that idea early and often.

M wrote back that she was "floored" to get a "real letter:"

I've delayed writing back because I've been thinking: How many years has it been since I've received a "real letter?" I'm pretty sure it's at least 10 ... What will happen to history with the loss of writing on paper? We can see how Lincoln edited his speeches, how Hemingway wrote his novels -- but we can't see the deletes and editing in an e-mail, assuming the e-mails even survive.

A few days ago I received a letter from J, a county attorney who, serving as he did as a source for many of my stories at that first reporting job, was someone else I needed to thank:

It was clear you always expected me to do my homework before talking to you ... I would think I'd done everything I could to shore up answers and fill in background, but quite frequently you could point out where I should have been looking for something or could have found my answer. I became better at my job as a result of being challenged by sources like you.

J wrote that he was "pleasantly surprised" to receive my letter.

I am touched to have been in your letter jar. Thanks for your thanks -- and an accurate reading of my expectations.

M's and J's letters came at exactly the right time -- just when I and The Letter Jar project needed some reinforcement. I so delighted in finding personal letters in the mail, so enjoyed the anticipation I felt in wondering what the senders had enclosed inside. Seeing their handwriting and reading their words, I got such a boost -- one I am once again committed to giving others.

ACCIDENTALLY ANTISOCIAL: Thanks to all my new Twitter followers and Facebook fans and please accept my apologies for my lack of acknowledgment to date. I appreciate your interest in The Letter Jar, and I hope you'll see that my recent inactivity is uncharacteristic; I love to write letters -- that's why I started The Letter Jar project -- and I love talking about it here. And I look forward to hearing what you think too.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Luck of the Draw

One of the things I love about The Letter Jar project is its randomness. I resolved at the beginning not to write my letters in a particular order, knowing that I would choose "easy" recipients -- former work colleagues, teachers, my favorite authors -- first and postpone the more emotionally complicated letters to family, close friends, ex-lovers.

So each day I pull a name from the jar. Over the past week I've written to my mother, a fellow stepmom I met through an Internet chat board, my 14-year-old nephew and a competitor at my first reporting job.

Never knowing what -- or, more accurately, whom -- I'm going to get when I open the jar means I also don't know what kind of mindset I'll require when I sit down to write. Will I plumb the depths of my emotions as I realize I'm now the age my mother was when she made major life changes? Or will I write a less challenging, but still gratifying, letter to simply acknowledge how the skill and ambition of my former competitor forced me to up my game and made me better at my job?

Your Aunt Lynn is working on a project to write 365 letters in 365 days,  I wrote to my nephew. I know it sounds crazy -- why wouldn't I just use e-mail or Facebook or a text to get in touch with people? I've always written letters, though, ever since I was pretty young. And I really enjoy it. There is something about the process of putting pen to paper that helps me really tell people how I feel about them.

While my Letter Jar method could be aptly described as "the luck of the draw," it also seems there is luck in every draw -- for all my relationships, and in all the ways they have taught and enriched and strengthened me, I am lucky indeed.


THE LOST ART: Thanks to Jackie at Letters & Journals for linking to a story in The Guardian about "comedian and serial tweeter Sue Perkins, who is fronting a campaign to get people back into the habit of writing to one another." Write on!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Roll Call, Part II

Several months ago I posted about where my letters have been going. As I approach the 200-letter mark, I was curious once again as to the distribution of letters from The Letter Jar:

Illinois 54
New Mexico 30
Iowa 28
Colorado 18
New York 12
Indiana 8
Florida 5
California, Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia 4
Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma 3
Arizona, Texas 2
Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin 1
Alberta, CANADA 1

Of course, the majority of letters are still destined for the places I've spent the majority of my time -- Illinois and New Mexico as an adult, Iowa as a student, Colorado and New York as a child. But seeing all the other places too reminds me how blessed I have been to know people who hail from all around the nation (and beyond, in the case of my friend T in Canada), and who, like me, have moved about the country as well.

Seeing this list reinforces the subtle excitement I feel when I address a letter, envisioning it winding up in a mailbox -- an actual, real, physical mailbox, not a cyber one -- somewhere 20 or 200 or 2,000 miles away.

CAN'T WAIT: National Public Radio has put out a call for letters -- love letters, fan mail, notes from relatives -- as part of an upcoming story on the U.S. Postal Service. This project has produced a few I'd like to upload (find out how you can too -- click here for NPR's Facebook fan page, where you'll find the post about letters). This letter-writing junkie looks forward to hearing the story.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Clues

Who knew that letters to 194 people could teach me so much about just one:

Me.


I just finished a letter to P, a woman I met in college. About 13 years ago, I set P up with J, another friend of mine. P and J married one week after I wed my first husband.

While our union lasted five years, and theirs just five months, I still see in P a kindred spirit -- she and I both acted in good faith when we chose to wed, believing we were in love and had found someone with whom to fulfill our dreams.

Turns out we were wrong. Certainly about the dream fulfillment part; perhaps as far as love was concerned, we simply overestimated its power to make everything else right.

As I wrote to P, and thought about our weddings a decade ago, I felt as if I was retracing my steps. I found myself looking for -- and finding -- clues, little bits of answers to questions I wasn't even consciously aware I had: Why hadn't I given more thought to getting married the first time? What made me leap, with nary the most cursory look around?

Oh, that a six-page letter to a friend could fully answer those questions. But writing still put me in touch, however briefly, with the girl I was back then -- through a new lens I examined my youth and naivete, my eagerness to please, my need for security and the approval of others.

Learning more about myself certainly wasn't a primary goal of The Letter Jar project, but is perhaps an outcome I should have anticipated. After all, I haven't lived my life in a vacuum; the events of my life are populated with a widely varied, and in some cases highly influential, cast of characters. And, in that way,  writing to them becomes an opportunity to recognize not only who they were and are, but also, interestingly, a way to explore who I was and am.

NEXT READ: I can't wait to get my hands on Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey, a fascinating history of handwriting and its effect on our creativity, understanding of language and daily lives. Listen to Burns Florey discuss her book on the public radio show "Here and Now."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Memory DNA

Image courtesy of Svilen Milev, www.efffective.com
I remember the hat you mentioned. Your brother said it made me look old. I still have that hat, but, I don't need it to look old. 

Yesterday I received a letter back from my Uncle F. In my letter to him I had recalled a roller coaster I once rode with him and how he lost his hat when the ride went upside down.

Never mind that the ride was some 30 years ago -- it immediately comes to mind when I think of Uncle F.

Stories like these -- an amusement park mishap, my Great Aunt L using colorful language to make my brother behave at the Thanksgiving dinner table, the time I foolishly took on my Uncle C, a real estate agent, in a game of Monopoly -- make up our family DNA. Just as important -- maybe even more so -- as our real genetic strands, memory DNA helps define us, gives us an irrevocable sense of place no matter where we roam.

Of course, just as with the real stuff, not all memory DNA is perfect -- alongside the silly and the funny there is the serious and sad, the illnesses and deaths and divorces. Which, perhaps, makes the happy moments all the more important: not unlike the stronger parts of our genetic code, recollections of better times can reinforce and heal us amid painful struggle.

I also remember taking you and your brother for a short flight in the Taylorcraft. Your brother has told me that that ride gave him an interest in flying. I am enclosing a copy of my logbook entry for that flight.

I was so touched to see the logbook entry from 1979. That airplane flight, a roller coaster ride, years of Christmases and Easters and everything in between -- no one else has my exact combination of memories. More so than my flat feet or straight hair or blue eyes, my memories, thankfully, make me who I am.

Yesterday morning, before receiving the letter from Uncle F, I wrote to my Aunt C. She is someone with whom I associate not hats, but shoes -- stilettos, in fact.

... Your ability to walk gracefully in those shoes, in any situation -- I will never forget the time you came to see me in Georgetown at my hotel, and we walked to that restaurant across the icy bridge. You did it, skillfully! Might seem like a weird thing to mention or admire, but I'm telling you, as someone who isn't always as sure on her feet, I'm in awe.

Obviously her footwear isn't all I associate with Aunt C, with whom I spent many a holiday as a child and who, a decade later, gave me advice about quitting smoking (our chat didn't yield automatic results, but it certainly got me started on the path of giving up cigarettes for good). More memories, more DNA.

My Uncle F closed his letter to me by mentioning how I have a great husband (I do) and how my stepson and son are lucky to have been born into such a loving family (we're lucky to have them). One of my greatest hopes is that my husband and I can help the boys build their own "memory DNA" -- a lifetime of experiences uniquely their own.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

"The best is yet to come."

My former coworker L, to whom I wrote yesterday, said those words to me practically the very first time I met him. Given L's generally wisecracking personality -- which also became obvious during our first meeting -- I figured he was just being sarcastic.

Turns out he wasn't. L, corporate counsel at the insurance company where we worked, truly believed that no matter how good things are, they can always get better.

What an incredibly optimistic worldview, and--as I told L in my letter--damn if he isn't right. I told him how, over the past several years, I've been blessed with a loving husband and beautiful stepson and son, along with the love of friends and good health, and the simple blessings of a roof over my head, well-compensated work and reliable transportation.

This all is most certainly joy and happiness and security enough, and yet--it does seem to get better and better. Playtime with my children reinforces the wonder and joy in simple things. Challenges at work sharpen my sense of perspective. Even the return of a close family member's illness poses an opportunity to increase my faith and my patience.

And through this letter-writing project -- I just wrote my 183rd letter, meaning I have now written more than I have left to write, in order to reach my goal -- I've reignited old relationships, found opportunities to expand the reach of my writing and been reminded of the wisdom of my friends.

The best is yet to come? I can hardly wait to see what's next.

BREATHTAKING: Writing this post I thought of Pink's "Glitter in the Air" and its concluding line: "Have you ever held your breath and asked yourself will it ever get better than tonight?" She might have been asking herself that question after her absolutely gorgeous and utterly unforgettable performance of the song at the 2010 Grammy Awards.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Finding the Right Words ...

to express my thanks can sometimes be more difficult than I expect.

I recently wrote to my friend M, who was there for me during my divorce from my first husband. I didn't open up completely to very many people back then -- maybe it was a lack of trust, maybe it was my shame -- but M knew everything. M listened as I dissected every detail of my decision, weighed every last bit of evidence, second-guessed every assumption.

And M always knew what I needed -- a hand to hold,  a voice of reason, a joke, a pep talk or a cheeseburger or a margarita.

So when I went to write to M, I thought it would be a snap. The words would just flow.

Or not. I sat for a long time. I struggled to find the perfect words, the phrases that would articulately and fully convey the gratitude I felt for everything M had done. I didn't want to waste this opportunity.


What do I say to someone who was there for me, didn't judge me, at one of the most, if not the most, devastating and profound times of my life? Besides thank you, of course ... Thank you for giving me a place to verbalize some of the most heretical thoughts and feelings I've ever had. You have no idea, M, how much it meant to be able to talk to someone without fear of criticism or betrayal -- I would have gone absolutely crazy without you. You saved my life, sister.

She did save my life. And, as I remarked to her, it was just happenstance that she and I ever became friends in the first place -- during a company restructuring I was transferred to M's department, and she and I struck up a conversation one day. The next thing I knew, the girl in the next cubicle over was a cherished friend looking out for me when I wasn't so capable of looking out for myself.

It's almost as if the universe saw me heading off into the woods, and knew I was going to need a compass to keep from getting completely lost. You were my compass -- totally not at all anticipated and totally clutch -- how do I repay you? I will tell you I really do try not to take anything for granted these days; you just never how the universe is actually working things out for you.

Indeed.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Paper, In Person

Funny how writing so many letters to old friends can make you want to meet some new ones too.

A few weeks ago I wrote to A, a friend I made some eight years ago when we both attended a nonprofit management course at a local university. A was the director of a local Jewish center, and I was relatively new to a position in public affairs for the university health science campus.

A and I got to know each other in brief chats before and after class and during breaks, and when the course was finished we met a few times for breakfast. Writing to him I realized that as I have moved into a different phase in my life -- from working in public relations to a more solitary editing position, with another full-time job at home raising a toddler -- I miss the opportunities I used to have to meet new people.

As time has gone by I don't necessarily remember what we talked about during our breakfasts ... but what I do still remember very well is the experience of meeting someone new and broadening my horizons through shared experience and conversation and connection. If this letter-writing project has taught me (or perhaps more accurately, reminded me of) anything, it's that life is about relationships and the bonds we forge with others ... and the friendship I shared with you serves as a reminder of something I enjoy ... meeting new people from different walks of life and learning from and being inspired by them.

In my nostalgia for days gone by and the connections I made naturally working in public relations, I realized that I can still broaden my horizons even now. Forging new relationships may take a little more effort than it did in my 20s, but it's still possible -- I am aware that I need only be willing to show up in different places than I normally do, and reach out to the people I find there. That simple formula, after all, launched relationships with the dozens of friends whose names are in The Letter Jar -- we crossed paths at the beach as kids, at a church youth group, in a college dorm, at a meeting of a professional association.

I know I could find ways to meet new people once again, and the warm memories of getting to know you serve as an inspiration to do so. Thank you not only for the friendship you gave me at the time but for helping to rekindle a part of myself that has gone needlessly quiet.

I ended my note to A, residing a half dozen states away, as I do so many letters to far-flung friends: I told him I didn't know when our paths might cross again, but, until they do, to take care and God bless.

Turns out those paths will cross sooner than later -- A typed me a letter (he explained, apologetically, that I would be unable to read anything he handwrote) and said he'll be in my area for a conference in just two weeks. I don't know if you call that serendipity, or synchronicity, or what, but I am so glad A's name came out of the jar when it did. I'm looking forward to a chance to go "off paper" and "in person" for a while.


WELL-SCRIPTED: When I started my @theletterjar account on Twitter, I naturally used the #letters hashtag to search for like-minded "tweeps." (The irony of using the epitome of 21st century technology to find enthusiasts of a 19th century pastime is not lost on me.) I was somewhat bombarded at the time with tweets about the movie "Letters to Juliet," which was just hitting the theaters. Tonight I noticed the movie has made it to my Pay Per View -- perhaps it's finally time to indulge in a little "letter as plot device" romantic drama.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stuck ...

in the 1800s.

That's how I'm feeling tonight, about my letter-writing project. I am fond as ever of my (almost) daily missives, but was just reminded again of how this effort might be termed "quaint" or "old-fashioned," or--far less generously--"archaic."

I wrote a letter to J, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands. Remember when you could "write" to the fan club of your favorite singer or actor? Write, as in take a pencil--or a silver glitter pen or a fuchsia magic marker, depending on your age, gender and level of ardor toward your letter recipient--to paper and express your thoughts, then stuff them in an envelope, slap on a stamp and send them to the fan club's P.O. box? (Yes, this is how I once got a signed photo of Hall and Oates, but I digress.)

Well, it seems times have changed. I was hard pressed to find a physical address anywhere for J and his band--clicking the "Contact Us" link on the band's online fan club page yielded an e-mail form, because doesn't everyone e-mail now?

Well, almost everyone.

I settled for sending the letter in care of J's record label, which assures on its website that it looks forward to hearing from fans of all its artists. That may well be true, in terms of the label now having my address to send me junk mail, but I put the odds of J ever receiving my letter at 50/50, best case.

Luckily for me, as important as J receiving the letter was the act of writing it--I've long wanted to tell him what an amazing songwriter I think he is, and how so many of his songs have profoundly affected me. And the act of expressing gratitude for gifts, from no matter where they come, is something worth sticking to.

SPEAKING OF FAN MAIL: Among the letters published on the website Letters of Note are celebrities' notable, memorable, and downright quirky responses to fan mail they receive. A recently posted letter from Tatum O'Neal, circa 1982, is a perfect case in point.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All in a Day's Work

They were just doing their jobs.

That's one way of looking at my experiences with two people to whom I wrote this week. But the way N, an airline customer service agent, effectively yet unknowingly talked me out of a panic was nothing short of brilliant. And M, the first nurse I encountered on the mother-baby unit after having my son, is quite simply an angel.


N answered the phone on a fateful day in March 2005 when I called United Airlines--on the way to the airport, no less--to confirm I indeed had a last-minute ticket to Chicago purchased on a discount travel site.

You had the unenviable task of telling me that I didn't have a seat--that the online deal had not gone through. I was crushed, and you must have known, because you were so kind. You told me to hold a minute and you would see what you could find. I was starting to panic at the prospect of not being able to make the trip, but something in your voice, your calm and reassuring way, kept me believing that things might still work out.

Things worked out. N found me a ticket--at a cost no more than the discount site, even--and I made it to Chicago. To see, as it would turn out, the man who would one day become my husband and the father of my child.

Now I realize that in some ways you were just doing your job--you looked in the system, found a ticket and sold it to me. But, like I said, your calming manner made all the difference in the world to me at that point. I never told you during the call why I needed the ticket, but you knew somehow that there was emotional urgency and did your job with exceeding kindness.

When the aforementioned child was born last year, M was there to reassure and guide one exhilarated-but-exhausted mommy.

All the things you had to walk me through--particularly all that bathroom stuff--you did it with such kindness and patience. It takes a special kind of person to be a nurse, and you are that kind of person. At such a moment, when the new mommy is so physically and emotionally fragile (in a good way, but still fragile) she needs a reassuring voice and steady hand to guide her. And mommies at your hospital are so lucky to have you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you did to make me comfortable and able to enjoy every awe-filled moment with my new baby ... I know you were just doing your job, but you do it really well.

If there is one thing I love about The Letter Jar project, it's how my eyes are opened all the time to new sources of blessings. By reflecting upon random acts of kindness and grace encountered in the past, often in the course of short interactions with people during their workdays, I am ever more able to recognize--and not wait nearly so long to acknowledge--blessings in the present.

SINCERELY SWELL: I'm delighted to have discovered the letter-writing blog Sincerely Lauren. In a recent interview on another of my favorite letter blogs, 365 Letters, Lauren answers the question, "What is your favorite letter?"

Lauren: "Any letter that is sent to me.  I'm not picky.  I do like longer letters, but beggars can't be choosers."

Write on!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Change Just One Step ...

And the whole journey could be different.

That's what I was thinking tonight as I wrote to J, who as the editor of community newspaper in Colorado some 20-plus years ago, took a chance and hired me--a high school sophomore with no real journalism experience but a whole lot of desire to learn--as one of her reporters.

Throughout this letter-writing project I've written to (or plan to write to, in the case of names still in the jar) people who have influenced my path as a writer over my lifetime. My 7th grade English instructor. My high school journalism teacher. My advisor at the University of Iowa. And you. Of course I'm not claiming that one person made or broke my career, but I certainly do believe that each and every person made a difference, and the outcome just wouldn't have been the same if I'd changed even one step. So thank you. Thank you for finding a way to give an aspiring journalist a way to get her feet wet, cut her teeth (OK, enough with the metaphors) and collect some bylines.

In writing my letters I often have been struck, not only when writing to people related to my career, by the idea that every step--no matter how seemingly insignificant--influences the whole journey. And when you consider that "journey" is just another way of referring to "life," what are "steps" but experiences and connections with other people? Sometimes the interactions are with our close friends and relatives, people we see time and time again. And other times, we interact with someone briefly, and it's still enough to make a difference.

My experience with J was a positive one. I've found, however, the "don't change a step" pep talk most useful during negative times, whenever I start to think, "What am I doing here?" or "What could this possibly have to do with anything?" Or (my personal favorite) "Now that was a complete waste of time."

But if I change one step-any step--the journey could be different. So let me bless the steps I've taken, fully experience the ones I'm taking and be fearless about the ones to come.

LAST WORDS: I was fascinated to read that a note penned by John Lennon 15 minutes before his murder is now up for sale for $154,000.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Memories

Though the first thing that popped into my head as I wrote the title of this post was Barbra Streisand and the "corners of her mind" (misty watercolor memories ...), I'm feeling a lot more a lot more Funny Girl than The Way We Were.

I just wrote a letter to D, a high school friend. D was also my senior prom date, and I couldn't help but smile as I recalled that spring 1989 night.

That dress of mine -- hideous. So, so 80s, what with the pepto pink and the hoop skirt, aye aye aye. At least the hoop provided comic relief when I got into the Barracuda at the end of the night--I remember the damned thing smacking me in the face.

The story is true. D and I weren't doing anything at all lascivious, he was just driving me home. But as I lowered myself into the deep, deep bucket seat of D's car, the hoop raised itself--in a rapid and too-hysterical-to-truly-be-mortifying kind of way.

Recalling funny memories like that has been one of the best parts of The Letter Jar project. Recently I wrote to A, who in addition to being my best friend for the better part of 18 years, is by far the best traveling companion I've ever had. Roadtripping all over the country, from Wyoming to Georgia to Louisiana, we've racked up some pretty hilarious memories. I laughed out loud recalling the Savannah port-a-potty to which I lost a t-shirt I'd just purchased, the North Dakota farms we toured on a construction detour and the shrieking noises to which we fell asleep camping in Yellowstone. (We would learn from a park employee in the morning that those dulcet tones were, in fact, mating elk.)

I enjoyed another night of laughing and writing and laughing when I wrote to K, who roomed with me and A my senior year of college. The things we did and said in that apartment (a "quote board," which K swears she transcribed at some point, served to record the "things said")--what a year. My husband had to think I was nuts, listening to me just cackling downstairs as I penned my recollections of our misadventures. Questionable boyfriends. Inside jokes. Too much liquor. Not enough sleep. Memories I wouldn't trade for anything.

(K told me that she too laughed out loud--and got a few raised eyebrows from her husband--as she read my letter, which she has kept for whenever she needs a pick-me-up. I'm glad to share the wealth.)

The list goes on and on. The high school friends with whom I "TP'd." The grade school buddies who were the Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith to my Kate Jackson in regular re-enactments of Charlie's Angels. The friend who took me in and filled me with gin to help me through my thirtysomething divorce.

Sure, I'd probably stumble across these memories in the--ahem, corners of my mind--from time to time even without The Letter Jar. But the act of sitting down, almost daily, to focus on just one person, brings back so many more memories--and in such surprisingly vivid detail. And I'm quite grateful that some memories aren't just happy, but hilarious--surely the sign of a blessed life.

Funny girls, the way we were.

SHOUT OUT: Just have to thank Twitter's @writerlydee for graciously following and cheerfully supporting The Letter Jar project. Never did I know how many fellow letter lovers there were out there--may your paper be plentiful and your pens never run dry!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Like Neon Ice Cream

Yesterday I received two pieces of personal mail. Both replies to letters I'd sent, these letters were sweet surprises: even as my "sent" number has reached almost 150, my mailbox most often yields a disappointing pile of bills, catalogs and other obligations and junk. What I believed at the beginning of The Letter Jar project is not becoming any less true--with ever more of our written, personal communication handled by text and e-mail the old fashioned mailbox is now the franchise of official, "boring" mail.

So much so that a personal letter stands out like a tub of neon-colored bubble gum-flavor amid the vanillas and chocolates at the ice cream parlor.


One letter was from my high school journalism teacher, who thanked me for my letter but also filled me in on her life--knowing how hard as she and so many of my teachers worked, it elated me to read that she was enjoying a retirement full of family and travel and personal passions. "As a teacher it is always wonderful to see previous students excel in their personal areas of interest," she wrote. "Only about a half dozen of my previous newspaper students have gone into some form of journalism--I'm glad to hear your career has been successful."

The other letter was something of a two-tiered surprise--I was excited at first to see another personally addressed envelope in my stack of mail, but then recognized it as one I'd self-addressed and stamped. I'd written a letter to D, a long-lost former work colleague in Iowa, and when it came time to send it, I'd chosen an address from three listed for people with his name in his medium-sized community. (Thankfully someone had given me a tip about the side of town on which my friend was rumored to have bought a house--that, along with the resident age information whitepages.com lists with its addresses, fueled my process of elimination. Once again the Internet came to the rescue of my 19th century project.) On the chance that I'd chosen the wrong D, however, I stuck a note to the letter asking that they please return it to me in the enclosed envelope.

I sent the letter to the wrong D, I lamented when I recognized my own handwriting.

My excitement returned when I opened the envelope to find a letter--from the right D, who had very wisely used my envelope to mail his reply. His letter was newsy and upbeat, the latter of which was notable considering D had recently been laid off from the company where we had both worked. "The layoff has given me more time to spend with friends and goof off. I've gotten into better shape being away from Vendoland junk food. I've had moments of despair over the past year (What am I going to do with my life? Blah blah blah) but overall things are good. There are people who have it a lot worse than I do."

D's letter would have been a treat at any time, but I especially appreciated his words--and more specifically, his wisdom--at the end of yesterday, a particularly long and trying day. Finding personal letters in the mail everyday could very well be wonderful, but perhaps there's something to be said as well for spying that bubble gum just when you have a taste for it.

DUTY CALLED: When a nasty stomach bug felled my son and husband--but thankfully spared me so that I could take care of them--The Letter Jar blog--and indeed, The Letter Jar project--went on a two-week hiatus. The law of opposites helps me to be unworried about making my 365 letter goal--for as extraordinarily exhausted as I've been recently, surely there will be a corresponding time in the next 26 weeks when I'll find myself especially energetic.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing in the "Slow Zone"

"Like an 'L' train."

That was my response when my husband asked the other day how I felt about my progress on The Letter Jar project.

Anyone who has ridden the Chicago L, even just a few times, is likely familiar with a "slow zone"--the train is moving along at a nice clip when it suddenly slows down due to track conditions. You creep along for a while, and then you're off again.

Experienced riders understand that there's never any doubt that the train will reach its intended destination. They know the system schedule is built with the slow downs in mind--if the schedule says a train will arrive in Oak Park at 6:03 a.m., it will, regardless of how many slow zones exist along the way.

I feel like I'm in my own "slow zone" when it comes to The Letter Jar right now. It's not that I feel like I won't reach my destination, but my current level of energy--and subsequently, the pace of my writing--is in stark contrast to when I began, or even just a few weeks ago. Letters take a little bit longer to compose, languish on my desk a few more days before making it to the post office.

But I'm not worried. Far from making me question my commitment or forcing me to think about giving up, this more leisurely pace is a welcome reminder of how life itself unfolds--peaks and valleys, cacophony and quiet. Moreover, writing letters brings a kind of great joy I refuse to sacrifice by pursuing some artificial production goal.

ENVY AND INSPIRATION: The Missive Maven wrote recently about her new writing desk, tucked away in her lovely sun room. I'm envious--our house doesn't allow for that kind of expansiveness--but also inspired. I tend to do my writing curled up in my recliner with a cup of coffee, but perhaps getting imaginative about creating another space will see the end of this particular slow zone.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In Short

Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit.

I am learning--and perhaps The Bard knew this as well--that brevity is also, at times, the soul of a good letter.

This thought occurred to me as I wrote to J, a college friend. J and I met very shortly after arriving as freshmen, and ran with a pack of friends from the university's honors program--yes, like good nerds we often studied together, but just as often you'd find us sharing dinner in the cafeteria, pondering life's big questions: "Do you think this fish filet is shaped kind of like Minnesota?" We had a standing date for Saturday Night Live, trekked through the snow together to late season football games and, as typical college students, enjoyed a party or two or seventeen (hey, even geeks have to cut loose).

What I really wanted to say to J--and the reason I put his name in the jar--was thanks for being a friend at a memorable time in my life--the start of my college years. I came to school knowing no one, but thanks to "the pack," it wasn't long before I felt right at home.

People are what make our memories real, I told J. Sure I remember the places I went, the places I lived, the classes I took and the jobs I had. But they really don't serve to cheer me or warm me or make me smile until I think about the people involved. I'm so lucky to have known some wonderful people in my life--more and more I understand that life's treasures are not material but instead the relationships and connections we form with one another ... Even as many relationships--like ours--were mostly transient and tied to a certain period in time, they still make up part of my history and part of who I am. They have had an effect on me that is lasting--and I believe positive.

Maybe the phrase "relationship was mostly transient and tied to a certain period in time" should have been my tip off that I didn't have a lot to say to J beyond the simple thank you. And yet I still felt the need to write more. "Quality over quantity" just wasn't occurring to me as I sat, pen poised on paper, wondering what to possibly write next. Maybe I thought I needed to justify sending a real letter? I mean, heck, if I was just going to pop off a few words, why not just write an e-mail?

But.

As someone special remarked to me tonight, the beauty of a handwritten letter is not in how many words are written--it is in the words themselves, the spaces between, and how they are recorded and preserved on paper. "Just a couple sentences, depending on what they are, could be considered a beautiful letter," she said.

She's right, and fortunately I came to my senses before my writing-turned-babbling (wrabbling?) got out of control. I finished up the letter to J with a quick update on myself and an inquiry into how he was doing (I remembered him wanting to be a filmmaker, and he now lives in LA, which makes me wonder if that dream came true--just a few sentences back from him regarding his career could indeed be an interesting note).

J's letter isn't the first time I've found myself starting to "wrabble," as if I'm somehow getting more letter value by increasing the ratio of words written to postage paid. So I'm thankful for the reminder to refocus on the real point of The Letter Jar project--to tell people how I feel about them and the impact they've had on me. Those are sentiments worth expressing, whether it takes 20 words, or 2,000, or 20,000, to do it.

A RELATIVELY GOOD EDITOR: As a writer I've worked for a lot of different editors in my career, but none has ever been so kind--or so subtle--as my mother, who rightly observed that my blog post from earlier this week could have benefited from a little more work before it was published. "I liked your post about M," she said. "I did notice a few errors in grammar, which is very unlike you. I assumed you must have been very tired."

Leave it to mom to hit the nail on the head: yep, I was tired, and when I went back to reread the post, I cringed--describing my mistakes as "a few errors in grammar" was quite charitable. Thanks for reading, mom (and I did fix the post, and I promise I'm going to bed soon).

Monday, August 9, 2010

Family Matters, Part II

As I wrote tonight to M, my brother's mother-in-law, I was reminded how fortunate I am to belong to not only my blood family, but the extended family I have been privileged to inherit.

(My brother) became your son-in-law and you embraced his whole clan--mom, dad, sister, sister's husband and stepson too. It really feels good when to gather for Christmas or whenever as a big family.

Early on in The Letter Jar Project I wrote to M's brother, who shares his sister's welcoming spirit. I recounted to him how I will never forget a special Christmas spent at his house, and the way he reached out to my stepson.

It really meant a lot to me when you sat with (my stepson) at the piano ... I think the trip stressed him out a little because he didn't know any of my extended family, but he really enjoyed playing the piano and really enjoyed as you sat with him and taught him a little about playing. It meant a lot to me to see him relax and have a good time doing that.

I feel grateful that our holiday gatherings are filled with such warmth and love, and it doesn't matter who is directly related to whom.

A few days ago I wrote about my blood family, and how they make me feel rooted no matter how far I roam--they are my place to come home to. Writing tonight I realized that family, that welcoming place, is defined less by genes and more by the bonds we form and the care we show each other.

M, for example, was incredibly supportive and interested during my pregnancy last year. I was terrible at giving updates, but M still checked in regularly by e-mail and Facebook to see how I was doing.

And the blankets you and N (M's daughter, my brother's wife) made--so beautiful. I was so touched. Sometimes when I'm rocking my son to sleep at night I'll have one draped over him, and he likes to run it through his fingers while he falls asleep. Thank you again for such a loving gift.

I ended my letter to M by noting how I've come to understand that my son and stepson are parts of an ongoing story--my husband and I are building our family so that we can be roots for the boys and their families someday. And more than ever, I understand that it is not only our duty, but it is also our privilege.

A SURPRISE COMBINATION OF TWO OF MY PASSIONS: I've always loved discovering new music, and was intrigued to read recently that the new Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs, was inspired by love letters that frontman Win Butler wrote to a sweetheart in high school. He explained the song "We Used to Wait" to Britain's NME magazine:

"In high school I had a letter-writing romance with a girl. I was trying to remember that time... waiting an entire summer, pretty much half a year, the anxiousness of waiting for letters to arrive. All day every day there's almost this cloud of feeling hanging over everything. We'd (his family) be in Maine, I'd walk down to the post office and come back… the whole day was consumed by that feeling."

A song about the "anxiousness of waiting for letters to arrive." How completely cool--I must check out the song and the album. In the meanwhile, you can check out more of the NME  interview here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Family Matters

Over the last few days I have written to two of my cousins, T and C, both on my father's side of the family.

I see T maybe once or twice a year, and C even less frequently, and yet I still feel a closeness to both of them.

You are still dear to my heart as part of my family, part of who I am and where I came from, I wrote to C. I still cherish the memories of hanging out with you and your brother ... Like I told T in a letter to her, it's nice to know that no matter where I wander in the world, my family are my roots.

It's true. No matter what branch of which family tree we're talking about--my father's side, mother's side, my husband's family--the shared experiences, inside jokes and preserved traditions feel like as much of who I am as my blue eyes or flat feet. And speaking of genetics, there is a certain comfort in knowing that I represent my family tree in not only my appearance, but through inherited personality traits I am proud to claim.

I told C that I hope our families can get together again sometime soon. I particularly love watching my dad, Aunt P and your mom together--there is definitely a family brand of humor and they just feed off each other's jokes. I always feel like I'm in on a family secret when around them. I guess I can hope that our boys feel that way someday when they think about me and my brother, or my husband and his brother (who are pretty funny together too).

While I certainly have enjoyed writing the many letters that represent places I've gone--to college, to new jobs, to relationships, to church, to therapy--it's also meaningful to write some that remind me where I started out.

REMEMBERING OUR TROOPS: In my letter to C I thanked him for serving in our nation's military--he has my respect, admiration and gratitude. That got me thinking about maybe writing a letters to soldiers, and a little searching uncovered the letter-writing team of Soldiers' Angels. I am going to check them out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Friends in Spirit

This weekend, the "randomness" of The Letter Jar had me writing to S, a contemporary Christian singer whose music has affected me deeply, and B, a woman with whom I attended church some 15 years ago.

In my letter to S, I noted how the release of one of his albums coincided with my graduation from college and early days at my first job.

I was struggling to figure out "what came next" in my life, I wrote. I felt more than a little lost, and chased the answers in places I wasn't ever going to find them. Your album, which I listened to on my work commute, offered me peace, hope, and a different way of thinking about where my life was, where it was headed and what it all meant. To this day, I hear songs from that album and I'm transported back in time to my early 20s, and can feel the uncertainty turning to optimism and the fear turning to joy. I cannot thank you enough for the gift of your music.

B, as I told her, is someone I consider a spiritual mentor--she lived her life with faith when things were going well and, significantly, when things weren't going well at all. I told her that to spend so much time thinking about my religious and spiritual experiences--and friends like her with whom I've shared the journey--is particularly profound right now as I pursue the ever elusive family-work balance.

I have settled into a very blessed part of my life, but yearn for a spiritual practice. My family brings me so much joy, and I feel a great deal of gratitude as well for having been given these gifts of love. At the same time, things can get stressful ... there are times when I start to feel inadequate and anxious and irritable and a little sad, and it is then that I wish I had more of a spiritual practice to lean on to steady myself. I of course turn to God at those times, but I can't help but think I would feel more spiritually whole were I talking to God everyday, rather than in fractured conversations.

Some 100 letters ago, I wrote to D, a pastor in the United Methodist campus ministry at the university I attended. I related to him how the experiences of he and I and our fellow worshipers helped build the foundation of my spiritual life--lessons I read and hear and see now are all the more clear, having explored and inquired as I did back then.

I remember it occurring to me as I wrote to D that God works ways both obvious and mysterious--God brings us to exactly where we need to be, when we need to be there. That indeed seems the case with my recent letters--God in his infinite wisdom knows my yearning, and so has called to mind such powerful memories when I was in greater communion and took time to seek rather than think.

As I told B, remembering my experiences with you reminds me that the seeker in me has not gone, even if she has been drowned out at times by the cacophony of practical issues and concerns.

It is at times like these that I am struck by all that The Letter Jar project has turned out to be, that I never did expect. Each of my letters is making its own journey to a destination near or far, but it turns out the most important journey is the one I seem to be taking--back to my truest self.

SOME TIMELY WORDS: Love from Kaz, at the delightful blog I Love Letters, devoted a lovely post the other day to singing the praises of the "slowness" of handwritten correspondence. "I like the pauses between letters," she wrote. "I like that a little bit of life passes between the time a letter is written and the time I read it, and then a little bit more of life has passed by the time I write back, and then mores still by the time the recipient receives it. What I put into a letter is not information that needs to arrive quickly. It's more about capturing a few moments that can last a lifetime and will have the same value if they're read next week, next month or next decade."

"A little bit of life passes ...." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Learning to Fly

So I started out
For God knows where
I guess I'll know
When I get there.

~Tom Petty, "Learning to Fly"


If The Letter Jar project had a soundtrack, that song would probably be the opening cut.

Those words have always spoken to me, someone who isn't afraid to embrace the gypsy side of her nature. I can appreciate the idea of life being one big surprising journey--I may not know where I'm ultimately going to end up, but I'm certainly enjoying the sites I have the good fortune to happen upon.

And enjoying as well, the people I'm lucky enough to meet along the way.

Tonight I wrote to my former coworker P and her partner M. I worked with P at a community college in Albuquerque, where I moved with my first husband a decade ago.

P and M, as I told them in my letter, are some of the most genuine, authentic, unpretentious people you will ever meet. They both have such a way of putting you at ease, you feel like an old friend almost immediately. We rarely correspond anymore, but I nonetheless recalled warm memories the very moment I pulled their names from The Letter Jar.

Writing to them, I was struck once again by the seeming randomness--that indeed is likely much less random than I think--that rules the events in my life and the people those events bring me to. My ex-husband and I, Midwesterners when we met, vacationed in the southwest and decided to relocate. That decision gave me the opportunity to meet not only P (and through her, M) but also a whole host of other fascinating, funny, caring people I'm lucky to count among my friends. These are people I've been challenged by, learned from, laughed with and cried on. My life story wouldn't be same without them.

I appreciate the reminder of life's surprises, as I now find myself not moving physically, but nonetheless moving, into another phase in my life as a new mother. I've begun to notice as I write my letters that I am feeling grateful for the relationships I have formed over my lifetime--as a high school and college student, entry-level journalist, career changer, thirtysomething newlywed stepmother--and I'm yearning to form new ones.

The prospect seems daunting--making new friends at this stage in life feels at least different, if not more challenging, than back in college when I was rooming with a dorm full of fellow students and going to classes in big lecture halls each day--until I remember how I've made so many of the important connections in my life. I simply need to keep my mind open to life's unpredictable journey and my heart open to the people I meet along the way.

YOU MUST READ THIS: I'm so glad to have received an inquiry the other day from Felix Jung of the absolutely mesmerizing blog Dead Advice. He asked if I might be willing share a link to his work. You bet.

"Imagine, for a moment, that you have just died," Dead Advice challenges you on its front page. "If you had to look back over the arc of your life as it stands today, what stories would you tell? What lessons would you share, what things might you regret or confess?"

Take some time, read some letters. I suggest starting with Felix's own, A Small List of Big Things, which is poignant and funny, brilliant really. Then think about your letter ... a fascinating prospect, no?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Could it possibly really be a wonderful life?

For which I'm expected to show up?

Not long after I finished letter #131 (to T, a public defender with whom I once worked), my husband R and I had an quarrel. Several days on I can't recall exactly how it got started, but I definitely remember something R said to me:

"You just can't let yourself be happy."

My first reaction, of course, was to object. But of course I'm happy, I told him. Why wouldn't I be? I have such a wonderful life--loving husband, beautiful children, sturdy roof over our heads, reliable transportation to take us to steady employment each day--how could I not be happy?

There's a difference, R pointed out, between saying you're happy and being happy.

I fumed, muttering away to myself (rather unhappily, I might add) about how he was just wrong. I mean, come on--at that point I'd written 131 letters, all of which made at least some reference to the abundant blessings in my life (the aforementioned marriage, family, car and job, of course, as well as the friendships of my letter recipients, happy memories created with them and hopes for reunions to come). I'm happy, damn it.

But if I've learned anything in almost five years with R (three and a half of them as husband and wife), it's that he often knows me better than I know myself. Could it possibly be true that I was running around saying I was happy, without allowing myself the luxury of actually being happy?

Well, now. That felt icky. And uncomfortable. And kinda true.

It's not that I've lied to anyone, in any letter--I do have a ridiculously huge amount of blessings in my life. But I also have, as Tori Amos so eloquently put it, "enough guilt to start my own religion." And guilt, that turd in the punch bowl, it will make you question--sadly makes me question--whether you deserve your happiness.

Yes, some of my letters portray a girl who has screwed up--I've hurt people, most times unintentionally, but on occasion with more awareness than I'd like to admit. I've broken promises. Failed to meet obligations. Haven't shown up.

But the letters also reflect someone who has grown up--I'm admitting the hurts I've inflicted, acknowledging the broken promises and unfulfilled responsibilities. I'm recognizing the places--literal and figurative--I should have been and wasn't.

This woman, that girl growing up, has been offered by the universe an immeasurable bounty. And to refuse to truly accept those blessings--my son's happy babble as he awakens in the morning, rain falling outside our livingroom window on a summer evening, a kiss goodnight from my husband--well, that's just screwing up all over again. It's time to let go of guilt, stop inflicting more hurt and honor the vows I'm living right now.

In short, it's time to show up.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Angels

There are angels among us.

On some level I probably already believed this, but so many of the letters I've written as part of The Letter Jar project have made it ever the more clear.

Such was the case with R, to whom I wrote today. Some 18 years ago R advertised for a roommate, and that roommate ended up being my mother during my parents' separation. (My parents ended up remarrying a few years later.)

Now I realize in some ways it was seemingly by "chance" that mom ended up living with you, but really I do believe things happen for a reason. Yes, my mom just needed a place to live. But she also needed--maybe not as urgently but just as importantly--a friend. And she found one in you. Thank you for being there to listen to mom, to offer feedback and be a support a very uncertain time in her life. You were an angel.

I recalled to R how she became my friend and angel as well when I stayed with her and mom during Christmas break from college that year.

I was a fresh mess--reeling from my parents splitting up, facing the end of college with no real post-graduation plans, and coming apart at the seams over my feelings for my "ex but wished he wasn't ex" boyfriend R. (Who would become my husband 14 years later--who knew?) You were a good listener and comforting support. You were also a dose of perspective--you urged me to look past the details, all the gory details, of that exact moment and realize it would all turn out OK someday. And damned if you weren't right.

I told R that when I began The Letter Jar project, I just started writing down person after person I've known throughout my life, and figured that when I went to write each letter, my feelings for that person would emerge.

I've been so pleasantly delighted how much that has been true--with the gift of perspective I have realized how many angels have truly appeared in my life, offering me support and guidance and teaching me lessons I've needed to learn.

It is indeed true, so many angels. S, the friend who just happened to need a roommate when I separated from my first husband. D, a woman who happened to be dating my future brother-in-law when I moved to Chicago, who became my friend and offered me support I barely recognized I needed as I struggled to settle into a new life. S, yet another roommate--this one my husband's--who was there with right words at the right moment.

I'm thinking about these wonderful people and so many others who have been my angels when it hits me: is it just possible that I could unknowingly be someone's angel, "just happening to show up" when they need it? It makes me think of the oft-repeated words of Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

When you stop to think about it, is there someone in your life who was your angel? Have you ever thanked him or her?

I HAVE TO TRY THIS: A number of letter-writing bloggers rave about Postcrossing, "The Postcard Crossing Project" which just celebrated its fifth anniversary of linking people and their places worldwide. Notes the Postcrossing team: "The element of surprise of receiving postcards from different places in the world (many of which you probably have never heard of) can turn your mailbox into a box of surprises - and who wouldn't like that?" Indeed!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Upping My Game

This morning I wrote to T, a public defender who was a source of mine when I covered the cops and courts for an Iowa newspaper. I thanked T for making me better at my job--something I've had the privilege of thanking several people for.

"When I started covering the courts, you wouldn't even take my calls--and I can't blame you," I told T. "All the freshly minted journalism grads set upon the cops and courts beat, the franchise of the cub reporter. So many opportunities for you and your clients to get burned ... You expected me to do my homework, to understand where you were coming from, to learn and comprehend the judicial process. You expected me to ask intelligent questions. You were, basically, exactly what I needed--a dose of reality, a hard knocks crash course on what it meant to truly cover the news objectively and insightfully ...  Again, thank you for putting me through my paces. Still paying dividends today."

On that cops and courts beat, one of my fiercest competitors was M, a television reporter to whom I wrote a few months ago. "Sure, I wanted to do my job well from a basic standpoint," I wrote. "But the prospect of scooping you made me up my game. There truly was no better situation for a new reporter learning the ropes of the daily grind."

Then there was D, who, as a county supervisor, was also a source when I began reporting. I thought to put his name in The Letter Jar, then checked the Internet and found his obituary from three years ago. I decided I would write to his wife, A.

I remembered how, 22 years old and fresh out of school, I was struggling to cover the county board adequately—to understand which issues were most important to our readers, explain them well and represent the opinions of the supervisors accurately. And D, as I noted in my letter to A, wasn’t about making my job easy. It’s not as if he set out to make my job difficult, but he certainly made me work for every story I wrote, every issue I explained and every quote I captured. And he wasn’t afraid to tell me when I could do better.

"When I was covering the county board week to week, D was a tough cookie," I told A. "He made me pay attention, made me do my homework and didn't let me take shortcuts or easy ways out ... I remember complaining at the time at how hard it was to interview D for stories, how no matter how prepared I was, he could still challenge me. But looking back I realize I should be grateful for the lessons that experience taught me. After all, what is life but many, many unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, challenges?"

A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail from A. "Thank you for your letter re: interviewing D while on the Board of Sups!” she wrote. “He would have been very pleased to know he 'helped' someone, especially in their work area."

I do believe A is right--D would have liked knowing he helped someone, and I'm sure he's not the only one. That's one reason why I'm enjoying The Letter Jar project so much--not only am I filled with gratitude as the receiver of so much help and advice and support in my life, but I am perhaps spreading some joy to the givers as well.

FUN FIND: I was delighted when @skeldesign began following The Letter Jar on Twitter. I love her etsy shop of cards and notepads! I see the frog and owl varieties gracing my desk in the future.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thanking My Teachers

Last weekend I pulled from The Letter Jar the name of K, my high school journalism teacher. This morning it was D, my kindergarten teacher.

Seeing their names called to mind two sets of school memories that, while very different, have both filled me with gratitude.

I thanked K for encouraging me as a journalist, in class and on the high school paper and yearbook. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and from people like her I learned not only grammar and news sense but also to develop my own style and to always strive to grow and improve. I've enjoyed a successful writing career--in daily newspapers and magazines, public relations and now blogging--and I wanted to acknowledge and thank K for preparing and supporting me.

I'm still writing the letter to D. I don't necessarily want to thank her for what she taught me--don't get me wrong, knowing the alphabet and how to count to 10 do come in awfully handy--but rather for choosing the profession she did. As I watch my son with his teachers at daycare and my stepson with his at school, I recognize teaching for the incredibly vital and yet extraordinarily underappreciated calling that it is.

Teachers give us knowledge, yes, but the good ones also impart wisdom. They teach--through their words and more importantly their actions--the values of patience, of hard work, of perseverance. They encourage kindness and curiosity and cooperation. They cherish laughter and smiles and triumph.

Obviously when I was 5, D was simply the one who smiled at me each morning, who praised my drawings, who made it all better when I fell on the playground. I couldn't have possibly fully understood then how important a job she was doing. But now, 34 years on, I think I do understand. And I want to thank her--for being there for me, for my little brother and for the dozens of kids who came before us and after us. I'm sure I'm not the first to thank her, and I hope I'm not the last.

What do you remember about your teachers? How is what they taught you alive in your life today?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Connection, Reflection, Collection

Yesterday when I went to my mailbox there were exactly two items in it: both personal letters for me, responses to letters I had written.

One was from my husband's aunt C. The other was from J, a former coworker. Both remarked how receiving my letter caused them to reflect on other letters they'd received and sent, and how letters touch them in ways that e-mail and Facebook do not.

"My first letter recollection was from my grandma in Missouri, my mom's mom," wrote Aunt C. "She religiously wrote a weekly letter to us on paper exactly as you had used. Her news always included the weather and a garden report in the summer ... In college I would write home and frequently write my heartthrob, Uncle J. We have kept some of them."

And J wrote, "As I was spring cleaning over the last few weeks I found several notes I had received over time. It's an odd thing, I know, but I keep cards and letters I receive from friends and family. It's a little 'pack-rattish' but, as I rediscovered recently, it's so wonderful to go back and see how I touched other people's lives (through thank you notes and letters) and how other people have touched mine."

Actually J, I don't think it's odd at all--I too love going through the boxes of letters and cards I have kept from friends and family. "Pack-rattish" is how I would describe my one time obsession with keeping all the issues from my Martha Stewart Living subscription, as if somehow I would one day be inspired to tear through dozens of (mostly unread) issues and unleash a homemaking storm. Not so much--Martha got recycled. But cards and letters? I'd no sooner discard those than I would the warranty on the dishwasher or the DVD player manual.

"E-mail gives people the opportunity to communicate, but it's not without its drawbacks," C wrote. "It is too easy just to read one after another without taking time to reply, which is something I am trying to do--reply."

"I am a huge fan of handwritten letters (for many reasons) and have been since I was a child," wrote J. "It's probably one of the reasons I try to send postcards to as many people as possible when I travel ... it does make a more meaningful connection than Facebook which is at most times superficial and at the best a way to stay up to date--but it isn't very meaningful on a deeper level."


They're both right. Electronic communication and social media are in so many ways fantastic developments, connecting people in ways that Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell and the rest of our ancestors simply could not have imagined. These days handwritten letters are called "snail mail" for a reason--definitely not the way to go if speed is what you need. But if you're looking for connection, and reflection, and a way of building your own historical collection, it's in your hands.

SPEAKING OF SNAIL MAIL: I love these bloggers who have embraced the term and turned defamation into celebration. Check out Snail-Mail Aficionado, Snail Mail Madness and Viva Snail Mail!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Happy Anachronism

More than once on this letter-writing journey it has become obvious that I, with my love of the handwritten word, am a bit of an antique.

Let's face it: people don't expect you to send them anything physical these days. We "send" and "receive" trillions of intangible bits and bytes, but far, far fewer items go in actual envelopes, with stamps.

Take, for instance, my experience in writing to former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Wondering where to send my letter, I went to Mr. Bradley's website. I could find an e-mail address, but no physical location. I ultimately settled for sending Mr. Bradley's letter in care of Sirius Satellite Radio, on which his "American Voices" show is broadcast. I'm still curious as to whether it ever reached him.

I was reminded again of my outdated ways when a friend was hospitalized. When he posted on his Facebook wall that he had been discharged, I responded that I had sent him a letter and hoped that the hospital would forward it to him. Another friend was quick to chime in: "A letter? I wouldn't even know where to buy stamps anymore!!"

I know where. I know the location of the post office nearest to my office and the one nearest to my home. I can tell you which area post office has the latest pick up time and which ones have automated postal centers, those nifty stamp vending machines that, depending on the day, can make me just as happy as any apparatus dispensing M&Ms or pretzels. I'm not above admitting that I get a preternatural high out of applying postage to a stack of neatly addressed envelopes.

But I'll admit a tiny bit of self-consciousness too. A few letters besides Mr. Bradley's I have sent to people at their jobs, the only places I could locate them. Staying true to the art of handwritten correspondence, I address each envelope in longhand as well. No matter how neatly I print, however, I can't help but think of the anthrax-ridden missives showing up at television stations after 9/11, with their scrawled addresses. And I wonder, do I look crazy? I can only hope that my recipients--and their mail room managers, and their secretaries--don't judge proverbial books by their covers.

THANKS FOR FOLLOWING! I was delighted to discover that Love From Kaz, author of the wonderful letter-writing blog I love letters, is now following The Letter Jar. I have wondered about this "paradoxical blog"--Blogging about handwritten communication? How odd!--how exciting to find more and more people like me!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Letters for a Rainy Day

This morning I was traveling in Iowa with my son T and thought I'd take him to the Macbride Raptor Project before we headed home. I used to visit the owls (my favorite animal) frequently when I lived in Iowa; seeing their majesty always gives me a sense of great peace and serenity.

The Raptor Project is nestled in the University of Iowa Macbride Nature Recreation Area, with the rehabilitated and permanently disabled raptors in spacious outdoor cages you can walk past on a dirt path. As luck would have it, no sooner had I pulled into the parking lot than the heavens opened up. No way I was going to be pushing T in his stroller in the pouring rain.

As I drove back toward the highway, I passed scenic picnic areas overlooking Lake Macbride. When I heard T sigh heavily--a sure sign that he had settled in for a long nap in his car seat--I knew I needed to seize the opportunity for some quiet, beautifully situated, writing time.

I pulled into a picnic area and sat in the front seat of my car, writing letters as rain pelted the windshield. I wrote to my coworker J, thanking her for being a sounding board and also inspiring me to get more involved in my community, get out more socially and just generally have a life outside the office (being somewhat of a homebody may support motherhood and my letter-writing habit but, honestly, I do need the dust blown off me once in a while).

I also wrote to M, one of my childhood best friends, letting her know how much--even though we rarely correspond anymore--I still cherish the memories of Barbies, trips to the beach and dance routines performed in the livingroom for our (incredibly patient and kind) relatives. Writing to M, I was struck with some of the same thoughts I'd had when I wrote to S, the mother of another childhood friend. I noted to M and S that the happy memories recalled as I wrote letters to them are helping me realize how much I want T to have a small town life--a community where neighbors know each other and kids still ride their bikes and play kickball after dinner. It took motherhood, I guess, to make me nostalgic for the kind of upbringing I had, and now I want T to be able to run with a pack of good buddies and make the kind of memories I made with M, S's daughter J and my other friends.

I looked at the clock. 90 minutes had passed like nothing at all. And even though I didn't get to see Duke--my favorite great-horned owl whose disability has made him a longtime resident of the Raptor Project--I still felt extraordinarily peaceful, and serene, as I made my way back to the highway and headed home.

MORE WEATHER-INSPIRED WRITING: This morning as I wrote I thought of Jackie at the Letters and Journals blog, who wrote recently about her own stormy letters. I eagerly await receiving my first issue of the Letters and Journals magazine, which Jackie plans to launch late this year or in early 2011.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Where Have My Letters Gone?

Dropping a stack of letters in the mailbox today, I noted that they were headed to a variety of destinations--New York, Washington, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado. Which got me thinking: where have all my letters gone?

I added them up.


Illinois 36
Iowa 18
New Mexico 18
Colorado 10
New York 5
Ohio 4
Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan 3
Minnesota, Oklahoma, Virginia 2
Arizona, California, Montana, Oregon,
Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin
1
Alberta, CANADA 1

I guess it comes as no surprise that a great many letters have been delivered right in my backyard in Illinois, seeing as I've been seizing opportunities to reach out to friends and coworkers and family with words of congratulations, sympathy or simply "I'm thinking of you."

The rest of the destinations are a combination--of states I used to live in and states my friends and family have moved to. Besides being a wonderful reminder of all the places I might stop off on a cross-country road trip, the list strikes me as another way these letters are serving as a journal of sorts--in many cases I am reminded not only who I've been, but where I've been (and, in the case of my friend living in Montana, where I might want to "be" next).

If you wrote letters to people important in your life, in what state would you guess most of them would end up?

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: A favorite letter-writing blogger of mine, Missive Maven, responded to my recent cheap shot at the U.S. Postal Service and its proposed rate hike.

"I would personally much rather pay 2 more cents for a first class stamp than lose Saturday mail delivery, which is also a very real possibility," MM wrote in an eloquent comment on my post. "I believe we still have one of the most affordable and reliable methods of mail delivery in the world, and I hesitate to malign our postal service which brings such joy to my life."

MM is right. We do enjoy a reliable and affordable mail service that much of the rest of the world does not. And "enjoy" is the operative word. Like she said, without the postal service, there would be less joy--a lot less in my life and, perhaps, just a little bit less in each letter recipient's life.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Parallels

I recently received a letter in return from O, to whom I wrote a few weeks ago. (An aside ... his was the letter I feared I'd gone overboard with; turns out he not only tolerated the letter but thought enough of it to write back.)

Noting that he hadn't received--or sent--a letter in a very long time, O thanked me for mine. He then related a story that convinces me more than ever that I'm on the right track with this project. O related how he and a cousin were cleaning out the condominium of his recently deceased aunt when they ran across a stash of letters that O's mother had sent to her sister.

They were a hoot! We just giggled like kids at mom's odd silly view of things ... But while we were going through all these old letters and photos, we wondered if the same would be possible, or likely, in an age of electronic mail and images and password-protected computer files and delete buttons. And corrupted files. Probably so. People always figure out a way to dig up the past.

He could be right. Perhaps people will find a way to just as easily, or maybe even more easily, unearth a digital past as they do a paper one. And maybe my belief that digging through an old box of letters--with their handwriting and smells and yellowing, postmarked envelopes--gives you more a sense of connection to the owner than going through their hard drive makes me sentimental.

I'm OK with that.

Right now I plan to write just one letter to each person in THE LETTER JAR, so there likely won't be any stashes of letters from me for my recipients' relatives to sift through (or giggle at). But maybe someone's nephew or granddaughter or little brother will discover my one letter, and find a little extra comfort in the affirmation that their loved one was smart, funny, hardworking or brave.

I'll tuck O's letter, and the dozen or so others I've received during this project, into a box for my son to discover someday, maybe even while mommy is still around. I've often thought about how much I look forward to sharing with him the lessons I'm learning on this journey--well, perhaps the proof is in the paper.

STICKING IT TO US AGAIN: The U.S. Postal Service is proposing another 2-cent hike in first-class postage, to 46 cents as of next Jan. 2. This after a 2-cent increase in May 2009. "The Postal Service's plans to hike rates so substantially … may well produce a death spiral of fewer customers and ever declining volume," said Maine Senator Susan Collins. Want to try to stamp out this fire? 
Contact the Postal Regulatory Commission.